Western Newfoundland – Wildly dramatic and exceptionally diverse

Third in a three part summer series on some of the author’s favourite natural areas

I grew up in Western Newfoundland. I still hold the same bias shared by many who live in the area – that this is the most beautiful and wild part of the Island. Now, this sentiment may not sit well with many of you and that’s fine. We are all allowed to be a little prejudiced when it comes to our first natural neighbourhood.

When I say “Western Newfoundland” I am thinking about the region west and south of Deer Lake and the Great Northern Peninsula. In ecological terms, this includes the following ecoregions: Southwest Newfoundland, the Long Range Mountains, the Northern Peninsula and the Strait of Belle Isle. Metre for metre, this is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in North America. These four ecoregions are further subdivided into no fewer than 14 subregions. In comparison, the larger Central Newfoundland region is only subdivided into nine subregions. All this means that Western Newfoundland features a lot of very different landscapes. The high biological diversity of the region (e.g. the number and variety of plant and animal species) reflects these varied landscapes.

Why does Western Newfoundland have more protected areas than Central Newfoundland?

Western Newfoundland has significantly more protected areas than Central Newfoundland. Although both regions feature large, commercially viable forests, greater progress has been made in Western Newfoundland, largely due to the presence of endangered species. For example, populations of the threatened Newfoundland Marten are protected in both the Little Grand Lake reserve complex and the Main River Waterway Park. Three different designations are used to protect Little Grand Lake, the result of many years of negotiation with the mineral and forestry industries. While the core of the complex is supposed to be protected under the strictest legislation (as an ecological reserve), most of the area is “protected” under much weaker legislation so that mineral exploration can continue. As has become a familiar theme in this column, the ecological reserve portion of the complex has yet to be finalized, although it was largely ready to go more than 10 years ago. Given this Government’s apparent aversion to protecting natural spaces, I’m not going to hold my breath. I only hope the boundaries of the core area are not reduced by the time a more sophisticated administration comes to power.

Some of my favourite protected areas in Western Newfoundland

Now that that’s off my chest, let’s get back to describing some of my favourite protected areas in Western Newfoundland. This may surprise many of you, but I’m not going to talk about Gros Morne National Park. Undoubtedly the best known protected area in the Province, this King of Parks needs no light treatment from me. A search of the interweb for Gros Morne National Park results in an amazing 300,000 hits. A similar search for Barachois Pond Provincial Park, on the other hand, results in a little over 10% of that figure.
kids enjoying the beach in Barachois Pond
Ahh, Barachois Pond – my favourite Provincial Park. This is the protected area that so affected me that I dedicated most of my professional career to creating more of them. This is the park where the trees made me feel small – where boyhood adventures through the old growth forest or the freshwater sandy beaches created a suite of memories untouched by anything negative. A place where you feel like you’re standing on top of the world when you reach the summit of Erin Mountain. The summit is reached by the Erin Mountain Trail, a moderately difficult trail up the 340 metre mountain. I’m not sure if this is still in effect, but in my youth you were permitted to camp for free on top of the mountain where the staff had helpfully installed a few fire pits. This is our largest Provincial Park, at 3,500 hectares or 8,600 acres. This is as large as some small National Parks. Without reservation, this park is the jewel of our much-reduced Provincial Parks system and a must for any serious camper.

Sandy beaches galore

Speaking of sandy beaches, Southwest Newfoundland boasts the most, by far. Sandbanks (Burgeo), JT Cheeseman (Port Aux Basques), Codroy Valley, Barachois Pond – all contain beautiful sandy beaches. The first three are salt water beaches and each one has supported the Endangered Piping Plover. It is possible to share these beaches with the often hard-to-see Piping Plover, but one must respect the signs posted by biologists and volunteers. And one must definitely not ride ATVs on the few sandy beaches we have (the topic of a future column, since I’ve already had my tirade for this week).

JT Cheeseman and Sandbanks are somewhat similar, although I have found that Sandbanks experiences more fog than Cheeseman. The sandy beach at Cheeseman is part of a chain of such beaches over 10 kilometres long. For several years, I would walk all these beaches in one day looking for Piping Plover. I remember one year the Canadian Wildlife Service sent a well-trained crew down from New Brunswick to survey the area for Plover. They were like a tactical Army unit, complete with radio headsets and a well-rehearsed rapid reaction strategy to box the plover in so they could be caught (gently) and measured. These likable and well-meaning people showed a little of the “mainland” arrogance that I’ve seen time and time again – “Now do you see the correct way to survey for Piping Plover?” I immediately replied that, for all their tactics and technology, they did not have the innate talent to find the sometimes elusive Piping Plover that the Park Interpreter from JT Cheeseman had. I was constantly amazed by that Interpreter’s ability to almost sense the plover. She would often tell me we were nearing one, and five or ten minutes later we would see it. Alas, this position was cut as part of the incredibly stupid decision to eliminate naturalists from our Provincial Parks. All that experience lost, not to mention the extraordinary job she did educating children and the local residents on their natural legacy. Both JT Cheeseman and Sandbanks are camping parks and great places to base your vacation in Southwestern Newfoundland.
Where the trees make you feel small
Codroy Valley Provincial Park, on the other hand, is a “day-use” park with no camping facilities (although there are a couple outhouses there maintained by Park staff). If you are looking for a beautiful beach experience by yourself, try this beach. You may likely be the only ones there. The Grand Codroy River Estuary is also a biological oasis, with unequaled birding opportunities (especially in late May and early June) as well as world-class salmon fishing. For salmon enthusiasts (of which I’m slowly becoming one) Sir Richard Squires Memorial Provincial Park is an absolute must. Our Province’s first Provincial Park, Squires boasts one of the most awesome natural spectacles on the Island – that of Atlantic Salmon leaping four metres or more to get over Big Falls. A short walk brings you to a viewing platform where you can watch this amazing scene. The falls, which would defeat any human instantly, present a difficult but not insurmountable obstacle to the intrepid salmon. They explode from the bottom of the falls, fly through the air, then re-enter the water near the top of the falls – you can actually see them wriggling ferociously as they try to cover the last few feet. It’s mesmerizing.

The awesome and fascinating Great Northern Peninsula

Now, look up – way up, and you’ll see the Great Northern Peninsula. It’s not called Great for no reason. North of Gros Morne National Park, the Long Range Mountains provide a bulwark and comfort to your right (if you’re driving north). The Arches Provincial Park, another day use park, is also a must see. The Atlantic Ocean has carved two joined arches in the soft limestone in the shape of an “M”. The arches are huge – you can walk under them. I do not recommend climbing them, however, as I have heard of several painful falls (besides, if everyone climbed them it would deteriorate the arches).
my family at the arches
As you drive further north, the landscape becomes even more alien. Now you’re entering the Strait of Belle Isle Ecoregion near the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. The stark landscape is treeless, except for the odd patch of tuckamore (old trees lying close to the ground because of the high winds). This is rare plant heaven, although you’d be hard pressed to know it since the limestone barrens look completely devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your average patch of boreal forest contains 15-20 vascular plants. The same area of limestone barrens supports anywhere between 35-50 vascular plants, although they are generally smaller than your thumb. Many of these plants are rare and some are only found along this small stretch of coastline in the entire world. One could be forgiven for not knowing this, given the small size and often difficult identifying characteristics. However, due to the courageous efforts of local residents, government biologists and university students and professors, the level of awareness of this landscape and it’s diversity is now quite high. To relate the efforts of these individuals would (and should) take an entire book – there are many lessons here for conservation workers from anywhere in the world. I refer you instead to their excellent website for more information. I strongly suggest you go through this site before you plan a trip to this area. It will enhance your visit immeasurably. Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve was once the best place to view this landscape and the rare plants, but thanks to the recent budget, there are no reserve staff anymore. I honestly can’t see how this globally important plant reserve will be effectively protected without them.

I think I’ll leave it there, drawing this column and my short mini-series to a close. This column is a little long, but it barely begins to do the region justice. For those of you that tire of my frequent asides and tirades, I make no apologies. Nor do I repent for using flowery language to describe some of these areas. I mean every word. If you visit some of these sites, slow down and take a closer look – I’m sure they will become to mean as much to you as they do to me. I only wish we had more of them.

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